In a letter Thursday to General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra, a U.S. senator urged the company to issue a stronger warning to owners of some 1.6 million recalled vehicles, including a recommendation that they do not drive them.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked Barra to issue the stronger warning immediately, before a hearing set before a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday. She is scheduled to answer questions before a House subcommittee on Tuesday.
“I request your immediate attention and action concerning severe harms — and reprehensible ongoing risks — resulting from serious defects in many GM cars,” he wrote Barra. “I have reviewed the language of several of the recall notices, and I find that it fails to reflect the immediate, clear safety threat caused by the defects.”
Also on Thursday, an emergency hearing was set for this week in Texas on a class-action lawsuit demanding that GM vehicles be parked immediately.
Texas lawyer Bob Hilliard represents 15 families affected by 15 deaths in a lawsuit against GM. The suit alleges that the recalled vehicles on the road are a public-safety issue and will lead to more injuries or deaths. He wants a federal court to order them off the road.
U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos will hear the emergency motion on April 4 in Corpus Christi, Texas.
In setting the hearing date, GM argued the emergency motion was not necessary or appropriate, said Hilliard of Hilliard Munoz Gonzales.
Last week, Barra told reporters the recalled cars are safe to drive, if the key chains are shed of everything but the key.
“What universe are they in?” Hilliard said. “These cars are dangerous. GM tells its customers, ‘This event (loss of power and air bags) can happen at any moment, regardless of what you do,’ and, at the same time, Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, says, ‘Keep driving, America; it will be fine.’ GM’s customers deserve better.”
GM has sent recall notices to owners of the affected 2003-7 Saturn Ions, 2005-7 Chevrolet Cobalts and other vehicles with a potentially defective ignition switch that can be jostled out of position, possibly disabling air-bag deployment.
Until replacement parts are available and installed, the company has urged service departments to tell customers that “it is very important that you use the ignition key and nothing else,” including the key fob, “on your key ring.” But it has not recommended against driving the cars.
Records indicate GM has known for some years that ignition switches could potentially be jostled out of position on the recalled vehicles by a driver’s knee or extra weight on the keychain; the company issued a service bulletin to that effect as far back as 2005.
Blumenthal, meanwhile, is setting himself up as a pointed critic of the company and its handling of the recall. Earlier this week, he urged the U.S. attorney general to force GM to set up a victims’ fund to compensate people affected by the recalled vehicles. He is a member of the Senate subcommittee that will take testimony from Barra and federal regulators on the recall Wednesday.
That hearing, as well as one Tuesday in the U.S. House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, will focus on why it took so long to order a recall when there were indications for years of problems with ignition switches.
In his letter to Barra, Blumenthal also said GM has an “obligation to compensate past victims for their deaths, injuries, and damage — including families who lost loved ones due to these defects.” He noted that the company could be shielded from liability for claims that took place before its July 2009 emergence from bankruptcy.
“I believe your company has
both a legal and moral duty to right this wrong,” wrote Blumenthal, a former Connecticut attorney general who objected to the bankruptcy court protection from product liability claims. “The shield from legal responsibility was the result of illegal concealment during the bankruptcy process. I urge you to establish a fund that can be used to fully compensate all harmed by concealed product defects.”
Blumenthal asked to meet with Barra “to discuss GM’s response to the disclosure issue, lessons learned for future safety threats, and broader reforms to improve the consumer protection system.”